Dr. King, Labor Leader

by Lee Saunders  |  January 16, 2017

Dr. King, Labor Leader Friends and aides of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on balcony of Lorraine Motel pointing in direction of gun shots. (Photo by Joseph Louw)

The photograph is iconic. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., only 39 years old but the nation’s most prominent civil rights leader, lay fatally wounded on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. His lieutenants stood over his body, pointing frantically across the parking lot in the direction of the shooter.

Dr. King was in Memphis to support the city’s sanitation workers — members of the union I’m proud to serve as president, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — who were striking in protest of poverty wages and dangerous, degrading working conditions. Their fight for dignity and respect was expressed with a simple, compelling slogan: “I Am a Man.”

Throughout his life, Dr. King (whose 88th birthday the nation celebrates today), highlighted the struggle of all working people to get a fair shake.

He’s best known for advancing the cause of racial justice. But he also had close ties to the union movement. Indeed, the 1963 March on Washington featured a prominent economic message. The marchers’ demands included a higher minimum wage, job training and a stronger Fair Labor Standards Act.

King understood the unbreakable links between labor rights and civil rights; he knew it was impossible to have one without the other. The needs of black Americans, he said at the AFL-CIO’s 1961 convention, “are identical with labor’s needs — decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”

AFSCME President Lee Saunders honors the life of Martin Luther King Jr. at the 45th Anniversary Celebration of the Memphis Sanitation Workers strike AFSCME President Lee Saunders honors the life of Martin Luther King Jr. at the 45th Anniversary Celebration of the Memphis Sanitation Workers strike. (Photo by John Focht)

There’s extra poignancy in this year’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. After all, it comes as the first African-American president prepares to leave the White House, a few days before the inauguration of a new chief executive who has stoked racial resentment. Just as civil rights are imperiled, Dr. King’s vision of economic fairness and the dignity of work is also under attack. Although the incoming president was elected on promises to lift up the working class, the available evidence suggests that his populism will turn out to be more rhetoric than reality.

And around the country, emboldened state officials are systematically undercutting the rights of working people to organize, bargain collectively and raise their voices at work. The result will be lower wages and benefits, less secure retirements and a hollowed-out middle class. And when public service workers — like the 1.6 million AFSCME members who pick up the trash, staff schools, drive the buses and answer the 911 calls — are disrespected, it also weakens our communities.

This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we must not only promote diversity and racial progress, and commit to serving others. We must also meet the challenge of economic inequality and defend the labor rights that were a pillar of Dr. King’s work. We must do more to empower working families and expand opportunity for people of all races.

Lee Saunders is the President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), AFL-CIO

When the Food Seems Part of the Punishment

by Pablo Ros  |  January 13, 2017

When the Food Seems Part of the Punishment

If you could take your favorite food to a desert island, what would it be?

This fun formulation is cruelly ironic for hundreds of thousands of prison inmates across the country who are stuck with their least-favorite food: Aramark’s offerings. The food is reportedly so bad (sometimes it comes infested with maggots) that it’s been the source of complaints and protests for years.

On Saturday, the Free Alabama Movement, an inmates’ rights group, will travel to Washington, D.C., to join a civil rights march and protest Aramark.

Aramark is a private food-service vendor that serves more than 380 million meals in U.S. correctional facilities each year. Prisoners say the food is often served spoiled and is anything but nutritious.

Because bad food tends to stir anger among inmates and can lead to riots, corrections officers represented by AFSCME have long advocated against the outsourcing of prison food to privateers like Aramark.

Minnesota learned this the hard way but corrected the problem by insourcing food service, while other states like Michigan can’t even hold Aramark accountable for admitted violations.

Let’s Not Forget: Obamacare Saves Lives

by Raju Chebium  |  January 13, 2017

Never mind the doomsday rhetoric coming from Obamacare’s critics.

Fact is, the Affordable Care Act barred insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. Obamacare also made it possible for 30 million people to get insured. Bottom line: The law saved lives.

That point was sharply underscored at a recent CNN town hall meeting by a former Republican voter – also a cancer patient and a small business owner – who asked House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., why Congress is rushing to repeal ACA without a replacement in place.

Then Jeff Jeans added: “I want to thank President Obama from the bottom of my heart because I would be dead without the Affordable Care Act."

Like Jeans, numerous others would also be dead if not for Obamacare. Remind the Affordable Care Act’s critics of that critically important fact.

Sign our petition to oppose Obamacare repeal here. Call the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121, ask to be connected to your members of Congress and tell them to leave the law alone. 

A Threat to Public Service Workers is Headed Our Way – We’re Ready

by Clyde Weiss  |  January 13, 2017

A Threat to Public Service Workers is Headed Our Way – We’re Ready

“Something Wicked This Way Comes,” the title of a Ray Bradbury novel, is also a warning to millions of public service workers who have built lives of dignity and respect, thanks to their unions.

The “wicked” in this case are court cases backed by corporate billionaires like the Koch brothers that may soon get a hearing before nation’s highest court. It’s part of their campaign to weaken labor unions. They tried it before and failed, but this time they hope to succeed.

Public service workers – whether or not they belong to a union – could lose not only their bargaining power to improve wages and benefits, but also their ability to have a strong voice on the job and improve the services they provide to make their communities run.

We can see into the future by looking into the past – specifically, at what happened to private sector workers when their unions declined or disappeared.

“Between 1979 and 2013, the share of private sector workers in a union has fallen from about 34 percent to 11 percent among men, and from 16 percent to 6 percent among women,” according to a report the Economic Policy Institute issued last year.

In that time, wages hardly moved. In fact, for men without college degrees who weren’t unionized, “real wages today are substantially lower than they were in the late 1970s,” according to the report.

Coincidence? Not at all. This is what happens when unions are weakened, whether because of a decline in membership or because extremist politicians pass laws depriving workers of their collective bargaining rights.

There is a solution. “Rebuilding collective bargaining is one of the tools we have to reinvigorate wage growth, for low and middle-wage workers,” said Washington University sociologist Jake Rosenfeld, one of the report’s authors.

Corporate-backed groups are going after unions by pushing so-called right-to-work (RTW) laws at the state level. At the national level, they pushed a U.S. Supreme Court case called Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which would’ve made right-to-work the law of the land. That effort failed. After Justice Antonin Scalia died last year, the eight remaining justices deadlocked and the case was returned to a lower court, where it remains.

But that’s not the end of the matter. Several cases that make essentially the same anti-union arguments as Friedrichs – and seek to undermine public service unions across the country – are making their way through the court system. After Donald Trump’s choice to replace Scalia is approved by the GOP-controlled Congress, the Supreme Court could accept one of those cases and side with those same forces that were behind the Friedrichs case.

It’s possible that even a justice nominated by Trump and approved by the current Congress may see through the deception at the heart of these cases. Regardless what happens, AFSCME will continue to fight for its members.

“The question before us, then,” asks labor organizer Dave Kamper, “is: how much stronger can unions make themselves before the full force of the onslaught hits us?”

Here’s our answer: Plenty.

We’ve already increased our membership despite the attacks. We’re determined to grow even stronger in the years ahead. We’re AFSCME Strong and we never quit making our communities and our nation better places to live.

You can do your part to protect yourself by joining AFSCME today. Find your local from this directory and sign up for membership without delay.

30 Million Reasons Not to Repeal Health Care

by Pablo Ros  |  January 12, 2017

30 Million Reasons Not to Repeal Health Care

Opponents of the Affordable Care Act took their first step to repeal the health care law without a replacement proposal. This is as bad as when Indiana Jones tried to steal the Golden Idol by replacing it with a bag of sand, and the consequences could be just as scary.

The Senate vote was 51 to 48 in favor of a fiscal 2017 budget resolution that sets up the repeal process, which is expected to take several weeks.

If congressional Republicans repeal the ACA, also known as Obamacare, but don’t replace it with a viable alternative, 30 million people are in line to lose their health coverage.

Senators who understand that the lives of millions of people depend on continuing health coverage were dismayed at the recklessness of their colleagues. One Obamacare supporter after another gave their reasons for voting against the resolution, even though no debate was allowed on the floor: Because there’s no replacement plan; because a yes vote would amount to stealing health care from the American people; because health care shouldn’t be just for the healthy and the wealthy; and so on.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said it was a matter of life or death, since “up to 30 million Americans will lose their health care, with many thousands dying as a result. Because you have no health care and you can’t go to a doctor or a hospital, you die.”

The millions of Americans who rely on ACA for their health care could provide millions more reasons against repealing the law. What are yours?

In Farewell Address, Obama Speaks to Working Families’ Struggles

January 11, 2017

In Farewell Address, Obama Speaks to Working Families’ Struggles President Barack Obama delivers his farewell address in Chicago.

In his farewell address to the nation Tuesday night, President Barack Obama wove through his speech the idea that working families are the core of what makes America special. Obama showed not just his fundamental decency, but a deep understanding of the real challenges American workers face – and what we need to do to overcome those struggles.

He said:

“But the next wave of economic dislocation won’t come from overseas.  It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes many good, middle-class jobs obsolete.

And so we must forge a new social compact – to guarantee all our kids the education they need; to give workers the power to unionize for better wages; to update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now and make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and individuals who reap the most from the new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their success possible.”

President Obama understands union membership is key to the growth of the middle class. As union membership drops, so do the living standards of all but the wealthiest Americans. We stand together or fall together.

Perhaps most importantly, Obama understands the key roles that the labor movement and the fight for workers’ rights have played in American history. He placed that battle in the proper context in his speech Tuesday:

“For 240 years, our nation’s call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation. It’s what led patriots to choose republic over tyranny, pioneers to trek west, slaves to brave that makeshift railroad to freedom. It’s what pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans and the Rio Grande, pushed women to reach for the ballot, powered workers to organize. It’s why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima; Iraq and Afghanistan – and why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs as well.” 

For eight years we’ve had a president who gets it, who understands what unions have meant to this country. In just a handful of days, he’ll hand over power to a man who has promised to stand up for the middle class, but whose record is – to say the least – very troubling. We don’t know what to expect from President Donald Trump, but we know we’ll miss President Obama.

You can watch the entire speech and read the transcript here.

Seriously? $1 Federal Pay?

by Raju Chebium  |  January 11, 2017

Seriously? $1 Federal Pay?

One of the first things right-wing lawmakers did after the new Congress convened this month was to revive an obscure rule that allows them to slash individual federal salaries to as low as $1.

Yes. Seriously. Congress has this power under the Holman rule.

Check out this video clip from NBC’s Meet the Press program about this rule and the effect it could have on federal employees, including those represented by AFSCME.

Supporters tout this dangerous move as a way to make government accountable to the people. In truth, this is an attempt by the new Congress to intimidate the more than 2 million civilians who work for executive-branch agencies (excluding military personnel) and blow up the 130-year-old federal civil service.

Right-wing lawmakers have long sought to bring the federal workforce to its knees and strip employees of their collective-bargaining rights. They figure they have the chance now because they control Congress and the White House. We won’t let that happen. Congress can do this because it can. Every aspect of a federal employee’s working life is controlled by Congress — from pay to working conditions to agency budgets.

To be sure, members of Congress can’t unilaterally invoke the Holman rule to punish federal employees they don’t like. They still need the backing of a majority of the House and the Senate. But this is part of a larger pattern where right-wing lawmakers in Congress escalate their hostility toward the federal workforce.

Though nearly all of AFSCME’s 1.6 million members are state- and local-government workers, we also represent more than 3,000 federal employees in 17 federal agencies. To them, this is a very real threat — one AFSCME will fight.

This underscores why it’s important for public service employees at all levels to exercise their collective-bargaining rights and join unions now. Yes, you can act to protect your careers and your futures.

Learn about AFSCME here.

Find your local from this directory and sign up for membership today.

Add your voice to the AFSCME chorus and we pledge to fight strong — AFSCME Strong — for you every day and in every venue, from city hall to the state legislature to Congress.

Council 61 Members Stand Up for Their Collective Bargaining Rights

by John Noonan and David Patterson  |  January 10, 2017

Council 61 Members Stand Up for Their Collective Bargaining Rights Julie Schultz, president of AFSCME Local 3289, lobbies to protect collective bargaining rights in Iowa. (Photo by David Patterson)

DES MOINES, Iowa – On the first day of Iowa’s legislative session, January 9, more than 100 members of AFSCME Iowa Council 61 gathered at the Capitol to meet with their legislators and demand that they oppose any changes to Iowa’s collective bargaining system.

Leaders of the Republican-held Senate and House, along with GOP Gov. Terry Branstad, have indicated that Wisconsin-style changes to public employee collective bargaining could be on the horizon.

Wisconsinites have suffered since their legislature decimated public sector collective bargaining in 2011. Wisconsin’s economy now lags its neighbors, prisons are short staffed and teachers have fled the state.

“Studies suggest that Iowans are even getting a bargain from those who provide the vital services that protect and ensure the safety of our communities,” said Danny Homan, president of Council 61 and AFSCME International vice president.

Julie Schultz, president of AFSCME Local 3289, said collective bargaining is crucial to retaining experienced public service workers who provide superior services to their communities.

“I’ve spent 20 years as a probation officer learning how criminals think, always continuing my education and certifications to stay on top of my profession,” she said. “If collective bargaining is restricted and we lose wages, benefits and rules that protect us, professionals like me with experience will retire or be replaced. And we’ll be left with unqualified people to provide vital service that protect the public.”

Public employees, Schultz said, “are the threads that hold our communities together.”

“We’re the teachers who teach our kids, we’re the correctional officers who keep criminals off the streets and we’re the nurses who care for the sick,” she said. “When we suffer our communities suffer.”

AFSCME Helps Block Postal Privatization

by Raju Chebium  |  January 10, 2017

AFSCME Helps Block Postal Privatization APWU members rally at a Staples location in El Cerrito, Calif. (Photo courtesy APWU)

The U.S. Postal Service will stop offering services at Staples store locations after AFSCME and other labor groups applied intense pressure.

The Postal Service said it will mothball the four-year arrangement with Staples by the first week in March. That decision came after the National Labor Relations Board and an administrative court ordered an end to the program. The American Postal Workers Union filed the NLRB complaint, arguing postal employees could do the work being outsourced to Staples.

“The Staples pilot was an acceleration in the privatization of retail services and a direct assault on our jobs,” said APWU President Mark Dimondstein. “It was time to draw a line in the sand.”

AFSCME has a long history of opposing the privatization of public services. Go here to learn why we believe it’s unwise to privatize public services. AFSCME is also tracking the proponents of privatization in Trump’s cabinet and transition team.

Advocates for privatization spin a great yarn about how great it is. They’ll say private companies can do the job better and cheaper than government. Truth is privatization often leads to increased costs for the public and reduced accountability to the taxpayers footing the bill. So don’t believe the hype. 

#YesWeCan: Obama Came Through for Working People

January 09, 2017

#YesWeCan: Obama Came Through for Working People President Barack Obama signs executive actions to strengthen enforcement of equal pay laws for women in the East Room of the White House, April 8, 2014. Lilly Ledbetter stands to the left of the signing table. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

It was the first bill President Obama ever signed into law.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed January 29, 2009, was one of those small fixes that had huge implications for women who faced discrimination in the workplace.

Lilly Ledbetter faced sexual harassment and discrimination as a supervisor in a Goodyear Tire plant in Alabama. When she learned men doing the same job as she was made a lot more money, she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Her case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled against Ledbetter, determining that she had filed her complaint too long after the original decision to set her salary lower than the men in the same position.

The bill President Obama signed made it clear that every single paycheck with discriminatory pay is a new violation, meaning people like Ledbetter could no longer be denied relief just because they hadn’t known the discrimination was occurring.

It was a huge boost for workers’ rights, and it set the tone for a president who would continue to make working men and women the priority of his administration. He didn’t stop there. He vetoed a law that would make it harder for workers to unionize. He made it easier to afford child care and helped push new rules to give overtime pay to more workers. And his Justice Department ended its use of private prisons.

Facing a hostile Congress for much of his presidency, Obama did what he could to protect working families, according to AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders. “He can always do more, but if you look at his record, he was really supportive of working families,” Saunders said. “Through executive action, he walked the walk.”

For eight years, we’ve had a president who cares deeply about working people, and it showed in the policies he’s pursued. #YesWeCan was the promise Barack Obama made when he ran for president, and he proved it true. As we reflect on Obama’s legacy, the Lilly Ledbetter law springs to mind first.

Do you like a particular policy Obama pursued? Do you have a story about how Obama’s policies helped you and your family? As Obama gets ready to leave office on January 20th, say your piece on your Facebook or Twitter account or your favorite social media site. Don’t forget to include #YesWeCan to show your support for the departing president.

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